From the land of black gold to the land of white gold
Taganga: Leaving Venezuela turns out to be far more difficult and expensive than entering the country. Even though we didn’t need a visa to enter, we are required to pay a hefty ‘exit tax’, for example.
In the end, it takes us over 30 hours, involves more than 10 separate vehicles, the bribery of a number of military police, migration officials and the regular police, hours spent dealing with corrupt police and public transport workers, 2 bus breakdowns and a crash, not to mention my very-near nervous breakdown, to get out of Venezuela and into Colombia. The struggle, the corruption, the sense of a nation going backwards reminds me in a depressing sense of Africa and of our difficulties there.
The journey takes us from Puerto Colombia on the Caribbean through Maracaibo in the state of Zulia, Venezuela’s hottest city and a place built on oil. It is built on the coast of the continent’s largest lake (and perhaps its oldest), Lake Maracaibo, which is connected to the Venezuelan Gulf at one end, so we cross the world’s longest pre-stressed-concrete bridge to reach the other side.
Women here dress in the long, loose cotton gowns of central Africa, rather than the figure-hugging vest tops and jeans of the rest of Venezuela.
Most of Venezuela’s crude oil comes from the edge of the Maracaibo basin and from beneath the lake. Nodding donkeys are everywhere, in people’s backyards, in the street, in the baseball field (they play baseball rather than soccer in Venezuela), working tirelessly to bring the black gold to the surface. Flames dance on top of the many chimneys posted to the sky, burning the gas off.
Petroleum and diesel cost next to nothing in Venezuela – you can fill up a car’s tank for less than US 50 cents. But all this extraction is having geological consequences. The region is sinking, so far by 5 metes so that much of it is now below sea-level. The government is building dykes but how sturdy they will prove in the face of an earthquake is anyone’s guess.
Lake Maracaibo is also home to an incredible atmospheric phenomenon known as the Catatumbo lightning, in which an almost continuous explosion of lightning illuminates the sky – without any thunder – making it so bright you can read by the light. It is caused by a 5 kilometre-high voltaic arc (centred above the marshy entrance point of the Catatumbo River) from vertical clouds that form because the lake is surrounded on three sides by mountains. This nightly lightning display is thought to be the world’s largest generator of tropospheric ozone.
We cross the border into Colombia, adjusting our watches back from the half-hour change that Chavez imposed in 2007, and find everything a little easier in the new country. Buses are modern and clean, people smile, the roads are sealed. But the regular police checks continue – with one important difference: we are not singled out for harassment.
Security remains an issue in Colombia, with a new FARC attack (motorcycle bomb) on the day we arrive, and an indigenous Indian leader murdered in a separate attack. But the violence is now on the fringes of the country. A successful military operation by former President Uribe saw to that. In their haste and greed for arrest-related promotions and days off, the military rather inflated their ‘success’ rate by murdering thousands of ordinary civilians, dressing their bodies in freshly-pressed FARC uniforms and claiming rewards.
It was this, a swathe of other human-rights abuses (including phone-tapping of judges, UN officials and NGOs) and a pyramid savings scheme scandal in which 4 million people invested in a corrupt investment programme run by a friend of Uribe’s sons, which finally saw the end of Uribe.
Two months ago, Juan Manuel Santos (the former defence minister) was elected, promising a hard line against terrorists (his election was greeted by a swathe of fresh attacks), but also a new willingness to engage in negotiations with the militant socialist groups. More than half of Colombia’s 45 million people live below the poverty line, while the wealthiest 10% (which includes Santos’s family) controls around half of the country’s wealth. Addressing the wealth disparity would go a long way towards reducing terrorism.
Other issues that Santos will need to face is the unpopular presence of the US military in the country – more that 1400 personnel and plans for at least 7 US military bases here. The agreement passed in May this year between the Uribe and Obama administrations, but in late-August, Colombia’s supreme court ruled it unconstitutional, and so negotiations continue in this latest episode of The War On Drugs that has cost US$1 trillion over the past 40 years with no progress. As an Onion headline once announced: ‘Drugs Win The War On Drugs’.
While Santos battles his demons, me and Nick have found a delightfully relaxed and friendly fishing village on Taganga bay in the Caribbean. There’s a national park next door, coral reefs to dive and delicious fresh fish to eat. We’re going to rest up a few days here, I think.